Some Possibilities for Narratives of Friendship

I loved Wes’s post on writing about friendship, and figured I’d throw some specific examples out there to see what actual novels and movies suggest about the nature of friendship. These are very much first-draft thoughts, as I hope you guys will riff on them.

[EDITED to add that I should have been much more clear that I’m not presenting the relationships in these works as models or ideals of friendship. Some depict what St Aelred would call “carnal friendships.” Some of them, like The Secret History and especially Let the Right One In, are arguably not about friendships at all, although I would say that these works gain their emotional resonance from the ways in which friendship and cruelty intertwine. If you want a clearer version of my take on LTROI my review is here.]

“The Body” & Stand By Me–friendship as childhood. This heartbreaking Stephen King novella, which was turned into probably the best adaptation of his work for the screen, tells the story of a group of boys who go on a journey to look at a corpse. Friendship is their haven from violence. It’s also their lost idyll. We know from the beginning that they will never again be as close as they were on that summer day long ago. Friendship is a place where you can be known in a way that lovers and spouses–the people you will end up binding yourself to in the adult world–will never know you.

I think a lot of friendship stories are about whether we can know another person. Stories of eros, whether marital or not, often play on the contrast between the physical union of the lovers and their unbridgeable distance from one another. You can “know” her in the Biblical sense, be inside her body, and yet have no idea what she’s thinking. Friendship stories sometimes suggest a deeper, more intimate harmony of minds: almost a shared consciousness. Other times, stories of friendship are about how even the friend remains as unknowable as a lover.

The Glass Bead Game, The Secret History, and like a million other college survivor’s-guilt novels: The “college novel,” of which The Glass Bead Game is the most longing example and The Secret History the most bloodthirsty, is often the story of the death of a friend. (I’ve riffed on death in friendship narratives here & in the rest of that series.) Again friendship is associated with a time before or outside marriage and parenting, outside the normal landscape of adult life. Both TGBG and TSH have this contrast between the social, horizontal love of friendship, and the ecstasy, the escape from everyday social loves, for which the characters long.

Both of these novels also show friendship as the result of a “thing loved in common”: common intellectual interests, although “interests” doesn’t seem like an intense enough noun. Common intellectual thirsts.

Many of these stories, too, are about the impossibility of knowing one’s friends. You learn how to know the world through their friendship and their company, and yet they themselves remain inscrutable to you. Probably the sharpest example I’ve read of that aspect comes in Iris Murdoch’s Book and the Brotherhood.

We Are the Best! and Let the Right One In: Two otherwise very different movies! We Are the Best! might be the best story I know about the formation of friendship: Two middle-school punker chicks in early ’80s Stockholm decide, on a lark, to try to rope their school’s lone outcast Christian chick into their band. Let the Right One In is about a bullied boy who befriends a girl vampire.

What links them is not only the whole “us against the world” thing (which is super common in friendship tales, and provides narrative tension that the harmony between the friends can’t provide) but also the depiction of how people who seem most strange to you can become your closest friends. Theories of friendship often overemphasize similarity between friends, as vs. the sex difference between (heterosexual) lovers. These two movies show how difference, too, can be the seed of friendship. Part of the Christian weirdness is the way the outside and the inside switch places, or act like a Mobius strip: the stranger and even the enemy becomes the friend.

Gilead and Crossing to Safety: Moving from the tween years to adult life, here are two novels about friendship between married couples. The friend (and his family members!) can threaten the marriage, even as his support is indispensable to it. Crossing to Safety is also a powerful portrayal of being friends with a married couple whose marriage you do not envy. Friendship won’t stop you from forming pretty sharp opinions–it isn’t a prophylactic against judgment, but a way of overcoming those judgments. Gilead hits that theme too, and also shows how friendship links families; your chosen friend will lead you into obligations to his kin, which you didn’t choose.

When Sisterhood Was in Flower: Florence King’s glorious satire of ’70s feminism is also one of the best examples I know of the thing Pavel Florensky says about friendships as the “molecules” from which the church is built. The friendship between dizzy right-winger Isabel and authoritarian liberal Polly is the foundation on which a women’s community is built. The narrative arc is provided by the struggle to build and defend a haven for some very weird women. A hilarious, disgusting book (five words: SCRAPPLE IN A BIRTH BUCKET) and also a book very relevant to the conversations here & elsewhere about embedding friendship in community. Friendship grows out of solidarity and also helps solidarity to spread. Like a social disease.

4 thoughts on “Some Possibilities for Narratives of Friendship

  1. Thanks, Eve, for these. I think there’s another category that isn’t quite covered here: Friendship as competition. I’m thinking of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet and the way friendship and identity become entangled in not altogether healthy ways for Elena and Lila. I can’t think of other examples from fiction/film but I do think Ferrante captures a real (and sometimes pernicious) aspect of friendship.

  2. I have to wonder if you’ve let Hollywood dictate too much of your view of friendship. The friendships portrayed by Hollywood are rarely what I would consider real friendship- and more often what I would consider a codependent aquaintence relationship.

  3. I’m gonna say Flannery O’Connor’s super-not-politically-correct short story [b]”Judgement Day”[/b] is about friendship.

    The crusty old codger whose minds-eye-view we get to see cannot even admit to himself t
    o friendship with the two guys back home, Coleman and Hooten.

    But as we follow his reminiscences, and we see his wacky escatalogical fantasy… (which involves pranking the two of them) we get these two guys are his buddies. He wants their attention and wishes he could spend time out fishin’ with them… both to the point of near-desperation.

    It’s a story with a lot of cold, hard realities of this life that are broken, cruel, and ugly. (i.e. mortality, racism, broken family relationships, lonely urban anonymity) The old man’s yearning for his friends is practically the one scrap of beauty in the whole thing… but I found it kind of amazing.

  4. I mentioned this in a comment on Wesley’s post, but a great book about a friendship is the excellent young adult novel Code Name Verity. It focuses on the friendship of a pilot and a spy in WWII. The whole book focuses on the friendship between these two young women. There is no romance. So surprising and uncommon!

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